Originals script their own success. Ask Irrfan Khan. It has taken time for him to be a superstar at home, in spite of the meaty roles he has essayed in Hollywood. He does things at his own pace. And he is a busy man. The script of Qarib Qarib Singlle, which director Tanuja Chandra handed him over almost a year ago, lay on his table gathering dust until his wife Sutapa discovered it. She is not your typical chiffon and Chanel Bollywood wife; Sutapa takes an active interest in her megatalent of a husband’s acting. Chandra’s unconventional treatment of the plot appealed to her. She took it to Irrfan. Such is his trust in her that Irrfan did not even bother to read the script, and agreed to do the film.
Qarib Qarib Singlle hits theatres this week, dominated by the unconventional smouldering sexuality, deadpan humour and the deceptively casually intense delivery that are hallmarks of Irrfan’s acting. In a media interview last year, he confessed, “Wanting fame is a disease and one day I will want to be free from this disease, from this desire. Where fame doesn’t matter. Where just experiencing life and being okay with it is enough.” Now, after Holly-Bollywood, he is invading home theatre, the next new frontier of films and television. Fans will be able to watch him in Amazon’s Indian original series The Ministry, about a faded and jaded Bollywood actor who becomes the culture minister and seeks to recapture the love of his fans.
Qarib Qarib Singlle is about the wacky, outlandish journey of two fellow travellers down memory lane through various towns searching for epiphanies in old relationships. Irrfan’s own journey has been eventful. It has taken him through the chaotic, vivid scenes of theatre, acting classes in National School of Drama (NSD) to Mumbai and tinsel town’s bittersweet fantasy world from a rooted middle class Jaipur background. Considered one of the finest actors of the generation, Irrfan is candid enough to admit that stardom has taken a toll on his ability to do things he likes; for example, the frequent restorative visits he and Sutapa would take to the forests.
To him, the mystical depth and breadth of forests are areas where he communes with nature and where animals and humans are part of the same playground. For a man who cried buckets on the shoulders of friends Raghubir Yadav and Sooni Taraporevala after being rejected for one of the main roles in Salaam Bombay, it would have been inconceivable then that he would reject a role in the last year’s blockbuster Airlift. Fame had given him enough confidence to choose his moves.
It wasn’t always so. At the premier of Mira Nair’s The Namesake in Mumbai in 2007, Irrfan had come across as an actor desperate to succeed, both for his own sake as well as the film’s. The angst came from years of struggle, full of disappointments and determination. Those years were not kind to him. Nair had paid him just `10 lakh to spend six months in the US while shooting for the film. Manav Kaul, who plays the lead in the upcoming movie Tumhari Sulu and is Irrfan’s junior at the NSD, considers him a rare human being. “When I met him for the first time he drove a Maruti 800 and was working in the TV serial Banegi Apni Baat. When he saw me struggling to make it, he organised work for me in the serial. Though I did only three episodes, it saw me through the next six months.” Manav had held him in awe and had touched Irrfan’s feet, which embarrassed him terribly.
The defining moments of Irrfan’s career were his breakthrough performance in Haasil, which brought him success in commercial cinema; his Hollywood debut in Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior and later The Namesake. The Hollywood roles kept coming— Slumdog Millionaire, The Amazing Spiderman, Life of Pi, Jurassic World and The Inferno. The New York Times wrote, “In a season that trumpeted the return of Debra Winger, it is the Indian actor Irrfan Khan who has generated some of the loudest buzz on HBO’s In Treatment.” A career that began in 1988 with Salaam Bombay started to rise only after the release of Tigmanshu Dhulia-directed Haasil in 2003. Fifteen years sporadically in front of the camera were punctuated with numerous TV appearances and films that did not do much for him.
The lead role in The Warrior was the turning point in his career. He says, “I had been part of the TV industry for 10 years. I was sick and tired of it.” He told Sutapa, who was present on the sets, that he was done. Says he, “I could not say precisely why I felt that way, but after shooting for The Warrior, I was exposed to a whole new world, an adventure that was fulfilling.” After the intensity of the experience, Irrfan went off acting for the next six months. He believes theatre gave him the intensity to live his roles. On the sets of In Treatment—a serial about a Bengali widower undergoing therapy in Brooklyn based on a story by Jhumpa Lahiri—Irrfan cried before each scene. He was required to learn pages and pages of dialogue, at a time he had given up drama. If an actor missed even two lines, the next option was to give a 15-minute take. The frustrated Irrfan made a long distance call from New York to Naseeruddin Shah to seek help. The veteran’s reply was that the only foolproof formula to succeed in acting is learning the lines perfectly.
The line he is taking in his career is to reject films, which will not give him opportunities to redefine himself. Change is the secret to success in the fantasy world of cinema, where Indian audiences, now exposed to versatile acting, do not accept repeat roles. Hence Irrfan has turned down roles in Body of Lies, Tanu Weds Manu and Airlift. Sutapa calls him a megalomaniac when it comes to his performances. “He did not believe in OTT acts during his NSD days. He was a man always in search of something unique. Perhaps megalomania is a prerequisite to becoming a great actor from a good actor.” With meaty roles and hits, has come success. Saurabh Shukla, a junior at NSD, recalls an incident when Irrfan’s phone used to be the only touchpoint for his friends. “It was the time when mobile phones had just come to India and only Irrfan had one out of his group of friends.
All messages would land on his mobile, but instead of being irritated, he would convey them to each one of us. I remember the day he came to me with the message from home that my father had passed on. I broke down but he held me tight and asked me to maintain my composure for the sake of the family. Those days we hardly had money. But he took me to the airport and bought a ticket for my journey.”
Irrfan’s brooding intensity, the world-weary understanding in his eyes, the surprised twist to his mouth and the sotto voce delivery that was loaded with angular humour are his trademarks.
These qualities attracted director Mahesh Bhatt so much that a casual conversation on the sets of Rog motivated him to cast Irrfan in his film. However, it didn’t move beyond the pre-production stage; an intended Hindi remake of the Nicolas Cage and Susan Sarandon-starrer Leaving Las Vegas. Vidya Balan rues the fact that she is yet to get an opportunity to work with Irrfan. The closest she came was during Kahaani 2. “When I see Irrfan even in an ad film, the only thing that comes to my mind is, wow, what a performer! He looks extremely casual and therein lays his appeal. Apart from Shah Rukh (Khan), Salman (Khan) and Aamir (Khan), he is another Khan I have missed out working with.
We were supposed to appear together in Durga Rani Singh, but I left. When Sujoy Ghosh later made it as Kahaani 2, Irrfan was busy with other assignments. Inshallah, it will happen soon,” says Vidya.
Irrfan’s line-up of upcoming films reflects the promise he made to himself that he would not repeat himself and will accept only meaty roles. Like Qarib Qarib Singlle, the next one, Karwaan, is also plotted around a journey he will take with Dulquer Salmaan, the current heartthrob of Malayalam cinema making his debut in B-Town.
The makers of Hollywood hit Little Miss Sunshine have hired him for his next in English, The Puzzle. Irrfan has asked his office to make dates for it the priority since he feels the story will give him a chance to transform himself. He will be paired with Kelly Macdonald, who was last seen opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the The Child In Time. “If you are unable to innovate, then you are as good as dead. I’m here to redefine things and whatever I’ll be called to do, I will redefine it,” he said, in an interview.
The partnership of Irrfan and director Tigmanshu Dhulia—who have delivered films such as Haasil and Paan Singh Tomar in the past—works well for both. Tigmanshu says, “Our combination is like a franchise and I don’t want to disturb the flow by making just any other film with him. It has to be special.” Irrfan is that special actor in Bollywood where the formula actors are either macho honchos or chocolate boys. While redefining himself, he has redefined cinema as well. He has cracked the formula of being the wrong star on the right set at all times. And this is what creates screen chemistry between him and his audience.
Irrfan Khan is at a stage in life where hits and flops have stopped bothering him. He is one of the few from the film industry who has successfully juggled his Bollywood and Hollywood assignments. The journey that started in 1988 is peppered with gems such as Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar, Piku, Talvar, Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, among several others. From being dumped from the lead of Salaam Bombay to rejecting Airlift on grounds of a story already been told, the actor has seen it all. Excerpts from an interview with Abhishek Srivastava:
Would you consider yourself a secure actor now with equal amount of success in Hollywood and Bollywood?
The secure phase had come into my career much before. It was after the success of Haasil and The Warrior that I realised that films would start coming my way. After three-four years, I fully understood that I couldn’t leave my roots because if I were to start telling stories which I was not interested in or for which I had no conviction, then I would be nowhere.
Tell us about the moment when you realised that stories with conviction were everything for you.
It was during the promotion of Billu Barber in London and I was staying in a hotel. At around 1 am, I suddenly realised some sort of blast happening in my mind. I realised what my true religion was. It was about my loyalty to stories. I remember getting so excited and shaken up by that feeling that I immediately called up Naseeruddin Shah to share my excitement.
It’s good to see a small flick like Hindi Medium coming as a saviour amid the failure of big tickets such as Tubelight and When Harry Met Sejal.
The cinema audience has evolved now and they have started expecting a lot from the industry. They are pretty sure that if you won’t give them good content they will resort to Hollywood or regional cinema. That’s also the reason why Hindi cinema is registering low footfall these days.
You talk of content in Hindi cinema but at the same time you were also part of a film like Jazbaa.
Things happen sometimes. About Jazbaa, let me tell you that when the story was narrated to me for the first time it sounded very interesting. I can say this with conviction that if anyone were to make a film based on the original Korean film, it can never flop
at the box office, it’s such a film. It
will require a special talent to destroy that film.
Would you ever relocate to Hollywood?
I would never leave Bollywood as my base. I don’t know what’s in store for me in future but I have no intentions of shifting my base to Hollywood. The only reason is that I won’t be able to do films as per the dictates of my heart. I will be forced to do all genres of films there.
Asif Kapadia made The Warrior with you, but you didn’t feature in his next subjects. It’s been more than 15 years now.There should be a subject too to make a film. The point is there should be freedom in any relationship which allows one to do things as per his or her diktats. Anything else would just be a mere film project. I will have no regrets even if he were not to make a film with me ever again. He is one of my favourite people. I simply love and adore the fact that he is a man with integrity.
How is the feeling when people say that you are currently the best actor?
It’s all a matter of time. After five years, there will be some other actor. Such things keep coming and going, and should not be taken seriously.
Will we see you directing in future?
I am not a multi-track person. It’s essential to be multi-track to direct a film. If a story really excites me then I might but otherwise I have no intention of directing films in future.
Any plans to write an autobiography?
No. The guys at Penguin have been behind me for many years. I don’t have anything interesting to say. My life is pretty boring and I don’t have a good story to publish.
Road to HollYWOOD
The Warrior, 2001: The breakthrough film that Irrfan was looking for after 15 years of struggle and it came from Hollywood. He played the title role. The film also managed two BAFTA awards.
The Namesake, 2007: Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, this Mira Nair-directed flick propelled Irrfan into a different league. International offers came pouring in after this film
Life of Pi, 2012: This Ang Lee-directed film won four Oscars in 2013 and had Irrfan in the role of the senior Pi Patel. The film based on the Booker Prize-winning book was a smash hit across the globe.
Tokyo Trials, 2016: Made by Netflix and the Japanese national broadcaster NHK, Irrfan played Justice Radhabinod Pal. In the story, perpetrators of war are tried in Japan in 1946.
Slumdog Millionaire, 2008: This film made Hollywood sit up and take notice of Irrfan. Based on Vikas Swarup’s novel, it ensured that all big-ticket bonanzas came his way.
Jurassic World, 2015: Irrfan played the role of a flamboyant corporate owner, Simon Masrani, in this dinosaur saga. e film made close to 200 million US dollars globally.